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Program fills gap for returning Guard, Reserve

WASHINGTON -- Though the Yellow Ribbon Reintegration Program has eased the post-deployment process for thousands of Guard and Reserve members and their families over the past two years, officials are hoping thousands more take advantage of the Defense Department program in the coming months, the program's executive director said.

"Anecdotally, we know we're under 20 percent participation," said Glenn F. Welling Jr. "That's a shame. There's a cost to this program, but that pales in comparison to the cost of a broken home, failed employment experience, a suicide -- all of those things."

DOD officials launched the program in 2008 to ensure Reserve-component servicemembers have access to the information and resources they need to reintegrate with their families, their communities and their employers effectively, Mr. Welling said.

A need for a customized service became apparent as increased numbers of Guard and Reserve members were deployed overseas after 9/11, he said.

Over the past decade, more than 787,000 Reserve-component servicemembers have been called to duty, and more than 100,000 are deployed or on active-duty orders on any given day.

But unlike their active-duty counterparts who return to the extensive support of an installation after deployment, Guard and Reserve members return to communities that may not understand the depth of their experience and to families that may be unfamiliar with military demands, Mr. Welling explained.

Yellow Ribbon helps to ensure that geographical separation from the military doesn't equate to emotional or social isolation, he said.

To reach every servicemember regardless of distance, Yellow Ribbon coordinators sponsor Yellow Ribbon events across the nation and U.S. territories, with more than 500 scheduled to take place in the first half of fiscal 2011, Mr. Welling said. The Texas National Guard, for instance, held its largest event to date this weekend in Houston, with about 1,800 Soldiers of the 72nd Infantry Brigade Combat Team and their families in attendance.

In fiscal 2011, about 2,000 Yellow Ribbon events are projected to take place, he said.

DOD officials have oversight of the program, but each service has the latitude to tailor the program to suit service-specific resources and needs. All are required to offer events before, during and after deployment: one at the alert phase, one during the deployment, and three post-deployment at 30, 60 and 90 days out. A core DOD curriculum ensures that all families receive the same basic information wherever they're located.

Predeployment events, which family members are strongly encouraged to attend, set the stage for a successful deployment experience, and include topics such as financial management, stress and anger management, suicide prevention, health benefits, powers of attorney and wills, Mr. Welling said. These events also cover re-employment rights under the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act.

"The more we're able to do up front, the more successful we are preparing people, the greater the likelihood of a successful reintegration on the back end," he said.

Events held during deployments focus on providing family members -- whether spouses, parents, grandparents, roommates or best friends -- with a support network, and on laying the groundwork for a successful reintegration.

These events also give families a platform to discuss shared experiences and challenges, Mr. Welling said.

Reintegration takes center stage at the 30- and 60-day post-deployment events. Servicemembers and their families work on communication, relationships and how to ensure a smooth transition back to civilian communities and jobs.

The 90-day event is geared for servicemembers, and is primarily intended to ensure they complete the post-deployment health reassessment.

As the final event, it "offers the last formal pulse check on a servicemember's physical and emotional health prior to being re-assimilated back to the military, (the) community and to life in general," Mr. Welling said.

Many events offer child care, as well as a youth program that teaches reintegration skills through age-appropriate activities, such as journaling or art.

"We're not just providing a babysitting service, but we're engaging those kids," Mr. Welling said.

Chaplains and military-family-life consultants typically are present to guide discussions and to offer an ear to a servicemember or family member looking to unload.

"The deployment experience will change you, and it will change your family, your loved ones," Mr. Welling said. "It's a big deal. But when prepared for correctly, the majority of stressors can be managed in such a way that newfound confidence skills, the ability to react under stress and pressure, can be very positive traits."

Among future efforts, Mr. Welling said, the Yellow Ribbon program will put a greater emphasis on job creation and employer support, working hand in hand with Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve, a DOD organization that promotes cooperation and understanding between Reserve-component members and their civilian employers.

In today's economy, job concerns are common, he said.

A Soldier who worked in construction when he deployed may not be able to find work upon his return, Mr. Welling said. But this same Soldier also has a tremendous ability to lead and make solid decisions, and is reliable, smart and drug-free -- "all of those things that make our Guard and Reserve (members) such great employees."

Future events will put an emphasis on including potential employers and spotlighting job preparedness, he said.

Meanwhile, Mr. Welling said he hopes more people will be encouraged to attend Yellow Ribbon events. While services are required to offer events, they're not required to make them mandatory. That discretion is left to individual units and commanders.

"We have a buy-in at the highest levels," he said. "But the unit-level leadership needs to hear about the value of this program. There's always a competition for people's time, but this is an investment -- an investment in their people that will reap significant benefits for them, their Soldiers and their command."

The feedback from participants speaks volumes as to the benefits, Mr. Welling said.

"It's powerful to go to an event and hear the testimonials and see how people's lives are being changed," he said. "Many said they didn't want to come, but leave saying they need to tell their friends they need to go.

"People have told me that this is the best thing (Reserve officials) have ever done," he added. "People have told me that if we would have had this before, they wouldn't be divorced, or having issues. Those are powerful statements, and very rewarding for me to hear."

For more on this program or to locate a Yellow Ribbon event, visit http://www.yellowribbon.mil.